General disappointment in WSIS-host Tunisia
As host country of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), Tunisia has not lived up to the optimistic expectations of some UN officials, but in stead exceeded the worst expectations of civil society. Many individuals searched their souls whether to attend the Summit or not. But the promise of a Citizens Summit, dedicated to the human rights demands of civil society and inclusive of the Tunisian people and organisations purposefully excluded by the Tunisian government, convinced many of them to come to Tunis and mingle amongst the 23.000 official participants.
In an opinion article titled 'No place to talk about Internet freedom' for the International Herald Tribune, Kamel Labidi, the former director of Amnesty International-Tunisia, describes Tunisia as "one of the Arabs world's most autocratic regimes." "Not only is the choice of Tunis insensitive to the many brave Tunisians who have suffered harsh reprisals from their governments for expressing their views, it also signals that repressive governments face little consequence when they systematically curtail basic human rights." But he also said the activities by the NGOs to show the unworthyness of the country as a host "sparked hope among Tunisians yearning for freedom and democracy".
The Citizens Summit on the Information Society (CSIS) was to be organised by 19 organisations, made up of both Tunisian and international NGOs. The organisation was difficult from the start. The CSIS objectives were to send a strong message of support and solidarity from international civil society to the local civil society and citizens, and to address the main issues being debated at the WSIS, from the perspective of citizen groups and the public. But the Tunisians did all they could to disrupt civil society meetings. It started at the third Prepcom in Hammameth, where meetings were disturbed by incredible quantities of loud-mouthed Tunisian infiltrants, claiming to represent civil society in Tunisia.
In Tunis the reserved rooms for the counter summit, though confirmed and prepaid, were cancelled at the last minute, because of 'urgent renovation works'. And no other hotel or venue could be found that dared to resist Tunisian government pressure. The obstructions facing the CSIS culminated on Monday 14 November when civil society organisations were forcefully prevented from holding a planning meeting at the Goethe Institute downtown Tunis. Following this incident, the EU group, represented by the British ambassador to the UN, Nicholas Thorne, issued a demarche (diplomatic letter of concern) to the Tunisian foreign minister.
In his opening speech, the Swiss president mr. Samuel Schmid used very harsh words about this climate of repression. "It is not acceptable — and I say this without beating about the bush — for the United Nations Organisation to continue to include among its members those States which imprison citizens for the sole reason that they have criticised their government or their authorities on the internet or in the press. Any knowledge society respects the independence of its media as it respects human rights. I therefore expect that freedom of expression and freedom of information will constitute central themes over the course of this Summit. For myself, it goes without question that here in Tunis, within its walls and without, anyone can discuss quite freely. For us, it is one of the conditions sine qua non for the success of this international conference."
Though the Tunisian national television had a live broadcast of the opening ceremony, halfway during the speech of the Swiss president the broadcast suddenly turned into a black screen, much to the dismay of the Swiss delegation. The next speech, by Shirin Ebadi, winner of the Nobel Peace prize in 2003, explicitly addressed the practice of Tunisia to create fake NGOs to frustrate the NGO decision making process. She also addressed the problem of censorship and the possibility that internet providers in the Western world could be forced for political or economical reasons to deprive entire parts of the world of their internet access. She called on the plenary to institute a forum under UN supervision to watch over internet filtering and equal access rights.
After the closing ceremony on 18 November, the US delegation used very harsh words in a press release. "We are therefore obliged to express our disappointment that the government of Tunisia did not take advantage of this important opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to freedom of expression and assembly in Tunisia."
Opening speech Swiss president, mr. Samuel Schmid (16.11.2005)
Opening speech Ms. Shirin EBADI (in French, 16.11.2005)
EU attacks police tactics at Tunis internet conference (16.11.2005)
Kamel Labidi, 'No place to talk about Internet freedom' (16.11.2005)
U.S. Delegation Urges Progress in Tunisian Reform, Human Rights (19.11.2005)